What to See in Masada – A Complete Guide
Masada is an archaeological site situated on a high cliff overlooking the Dead Sea. It’s primarily known for the dramatic account of its capture by the Romans and the defenders’ suicide. Today, Masada is one of Israel’s most popular tourist destinations, ideally combining the dramatic story with many archaeological discoveries and majestic desert views. The following review presents the highlights of the site when visiting the site from its eastern side:
Masada’s Visitor Center
Built In the 1990s, Masada’s modern visitor center a food court, a model of Masada, a video presentation, and a museum. It is also the ground station of the cable car service that provides quick and convenient access to the mountaintop. Alternatively, visitors can climb to Masada’s summit via the “Snake Path,” a steep ascent lasting about 40 minutes.
The Eastern Gate
Masada’s eastern gate serves both those climbing the “Snake Path” and those arriving by cable car. Noteworthy is the preservation of its floor, benches, and plastered walls imitating marble slabs. This design, dating to Herod’s time, reflects his style and opulence.
The Northern Complex Rampart and Tower
Masada’s northern end was the most developed and fortified. It combined a palace complex, a bathhouse, and 29 storage halls. A defense wall with a tower and incomplete moat protect it. The quarrying of the moat probably generated some of the stone used for the construction of the northern complex.
The Commander’s Residence?
The single entry through the wall leads to a unit with rooms set around a central courtyard, and a hall accessed through two columns (Distylos in Antis). The hall is decorated with frescoes with abstract designs. The lack of any figurative art seems to be intentional, perhaps reflecting the contemporaneous Jewish aversion of such. Due to its location, it is suggested that this is where Masada’s operational commander resided.
The Storerooms Complex
Beyond the commander’s residence is a concentration of 29 elongated storerooms. Built by Herod, these halls stored food, weapons, and all necessities for the palace’s luxurious life. Some inscriptions found on pottery shards unearthed in these halls reveal the opulence of Herod’s diet. For example, they uncovered a wine shipment of 13 amphorae from southern Italy in 19 CE. Other inscriptions indicate Herod fonded a Roman fish sauce delicacy called “Garum” and apples soaked in wine.
The Large Bathhouse
Bathhouses were integral to Roman culture and were introduced in the Holy Land by Herod. Masada’s main bathhouse is entered through a colonnaded courtyard decorated with a mosaic floor and an outdoor pool (Piscina). The first room in the bathhouse was a service room (Apodyterium). Frescoes decorated its walls, and the imported tiles in geometric patterns (opus Sectile) decorated the floor. During the Jewish rebellion, benches and a ritual bath (Miqveh) were added to this room. Frescoes and tiles decorated the adjacent second room, the Tepidarium, designed for massages. On its right was the Cold Room (Frigidarium), and the left end led to the sweat room (Caldarium). The Caldarium’s subfloor (the Hypocaust) enabled the heating of the room with hot air blown from an external furnace. The hot air circulated also through clay pipes integrated into the walls.
Find Spot of the “Lots”
A cache of 12 inscribed pottery shards unearthed in a room adjacent to the bathhouse. The names and nicknames inscribed on the shards included “Ben Yair,” the leader of the revolt in Masada. Yigael Yadin, who led the expedition that made this discovery, linked the inscribed shards to the lots cast by the rebels on the last night of the revolt. Today, these lots are on display in Masada’s museum.
Herod’s Northern Palace
This architectural gem seems to defy gravity. It is set on three terraces at Masada’s northern edge and held by impressive supporting walls. The upper terrace served as the king’s residence and had four bedrooms. Their hall led to a semi-circular balcony the provided a breathtaking view of the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea. The middle terrace comprised a round colonnaded room of which only its foundations survived. Part of it may have served as a library. The lower terrace was a square-shaped colonnaded hall designed for receptions and banquets. Its walls were decorated with frescoes and stucco decorations. In its corner, a small bathhouse was exposed, containing human remains, pieces of clothing, arrows, and numerous shards of glass vessels. Among the chilling discoveries were well-preserved remains of a woman’s braided hair. Yadin suggested that these finds relate to the last rebel who committed suicide alongside his family after setting the palace on fire.
Masada’s Water Supply Model
In the northwest corner of Masada is a viewpoint overlooking 12 water cisterns carved along the western cliffs of the sits. An active model placed at this spot demonstrates how Masada’s water supply system worked. It relied on seasonal flashflood, whose water was channeled to the cisterns. A winding path enabled slaves with mules to transport the water to the summit, where they would be distributed.
The Rebels’ Synagogue
Along the western defense wall of Masada stands a structure that initially functioned as a stable but was later converted into a synagogue. This modification is attributed to the Jewish Rebels, who added benches for congregating and a room for Genizah (storage for sacred texts). Two fragments of biblical text were found in the Genizah, from the book of Ezekial, and one from Deuteronomy. This room is used today for writing a modern copy of the Hebrew bible.
One cannot rule out the possibility that in this synagogue, the leaders of the revolt convened to decide on their course of action when it became clear that Masada would be captured. Perhaps here, Elazar Ben Yair advocated and convinced his people to favor death over Roman enslavement.
The Breaching Point
A hundred meters south of the synagogue, a section of the Masada’s Western wall is missing, and beyond it lies the upper part of the Roman siege rampart. Josephus said the rampart did not reach the wall, and a tower bridged the height gap. The excavations uncovered in this area slings and arrowheads, as well as large round stones the rebels intended to roll against the bridge. This is one of the most chilling spots in Masada, echoing the great drama that took place here some 2000 years ago.
The Byzantine Church
East of the breaching point is a Byzantine-era church whose state of preservation is exceptional. It bears an intact window in its apse and a complete mosaic floor in its service room. Dating to the 5th century, it is unclear whether the monks consecrated the fortress or were even aware of its turbulent past. It is also possible that they mistakenly identified Masada as the site where John the Baptist was executed. He was indeed put to death in one of Herods’ desert forts, but it was in Michvar, not Masada.
Herod’s Western Palace
It is unclear why Herod built both the western and the more splendid northern palaces. This may reflect two different periods of development of Masada by Herod. The western palace is a two-story complex built around an inner courtyard. A restored section of the second floor provides a view of the inner courtyard, the bathing area, and the throne room. Their floors are adorned with mosaic floors with intricate geometric designs.
During the Jewish Great Revolt, refugees settled within the palace, adding dividing walls. They also built inferior-quality shacks around the palace which the archaeologists nicknamed “the Slams”. In the southern section of these shelters, another public building was uncovered. Having benches, Yadin labeled it a “Beit Midrash” (Jewish study house), but it may have been another synagogue.
The excavations of the shelters yielded many artifacts that reflect the last days of the rebels. They included textiles, weaving tools, woven and carved items, ceramic and glassware, Ostraca (inscribed potter shards), bone artifacts, stone and metal tools, coins, jewelry, and even food remains.
Extension Tour of the Southern Part:
Most visitors will suffice with touring the sites mentioned above, and head back to the cable car. However, it is recommended to wander also through Masada’s southern part of, where the following features can be observed:
The Tanners’ Tower
One of the towers along Masada’s Western Wall was found with big vats set in its base. Yadin assumed it was for the process of making leather goods, and accordingly labeled it as a tannery. However, it is also possible that is was a laundry.
A Public Immersion Pool
South of the western palace there is a plastered stepped pool of an unusual large dimensions. The archaeologists debate whether it served as a large Jewish ritual bath (Miqveh) or a plain immersion pool.
A Swimming Pool
Near Masada’s southern edge, the archaeologist uncovered a rectangular plastered structure with steps leading into it. In this case, it is clearly a swimming pool, similar to the one Herod formed in Jericho. Having a capacity of 550 cubic meters demonstrates best water availability at Masada in Herod’s time.
The Southern Lookout
The southern edge of Masada was elevated and fortified for defensive and observation purposes. Today, it is known for the stunning view of the cliffs surrounding the fortress. Try shouting here and you’ll be surprised by the strong echo.
The Southern Water Cistern
Next to the southern fort is a large-scale water cistern, accessed by a staircase of 64 steps. Its walls bear numerous plaster layers, reflecting the big effort of maintaining the cistern in antiquity. This cistern is also known for the multiple inscriptions and graffiti left here by different travelers. One of them documents the visit of a Jewish youth movement to the site in 1941.
Upon returning to the visitor center, visiting the Masada Museum is also recommended. It showcases many of the artifacts uncovered at Masada in a unique and innovative manner. The items are presented with full lighting yet surrounded by figures and structures silhouettes that complement each find’s context. Personal headphones that are given to each visitor operate automatically in front of each display, providing detailed explanations.